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Friday, September 21, 2012

Renaissance Snuff

The city of Tournai (Doornik), not far from what is now the border between Belgium and France, in the year 1547. In a theatre a performance is being given which portrays the Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes, and her fearless beheading of the mighty Assyrian general in a bid to save her beleaguered town. The drama-charged moment of the actual beheading scene arrives. The audience is silent. With a single sure blow the sword falls, and the audience recoils in horror as the head of the actor playing Holofernes drops to the stage with bloody finality. Then the audience erupts, some shouting in appalled indignation while as many others cheer wildly. They have witnessed an actual death.

Or have they? No incident that I can think of brings the line between art and life, between illusion and reality, so shockingly into sharp focus as this one. Is this story a Renaissance urban legend? Did the audience in that theatre witness an early snuff drama in which someone actually dies? The forest of hearsay surrounding the story seems impenetrable, but some details emerge:

The 'actor' playing the part of Holofernes for the evening was actually a serial murderer who, when presented with the ghastly choice, opted for the role as an alternative to a more prolonged and agonising death by torture. Perhaps also he had hoped that the young actor (for we are still in an era when women were not permitted a stage presence) would balk at delivering the blow. In the event, it seems that the organizers of the drama were already a step ahead of him, and had persuaded a youth condemned to banishment to take over the role for the evening, the carrot on this particular stick being that his sentence would then be revoked upon the successful completion of his task.

And so all was in place for the performance. But did it actually happen? The town records were destroyed in a fire in 1940, and we are left looking down a long tunnel of circumstantial suggestion. For me, the odds tend to tip on the side of factual. There are just too many persuasive details, and the story must have come from somewhere. So let's say that it actually happened. And if it did, then we find ourselves at another shocking interface.

You can search the Bible for the story of Judith and Holofernes, but you won't find it. The Book of Judith, for so many centuries an accepted part of the canon, was dropped from the Old Testament as late as the 1880's, apparently mostly on the grounds that it was just too historically suspect. Puzzling enough when you consider that so much of scripture is actually historically [1]unverifiable. But it seems that the [2]Book of Judith was viewed as more of a novel, a work of fiction. Which in turn means that we now have the grimly bizarre situation in which a performance in the arts was more real than the event which it purported to portray. Art, it seems, can not only be more real than life: at times it can even supersede it, and the illusion becomes the terrible reality.

[1] My post The Butcher of Canaan is an in-depth scrutiny of the Old Testament's Book of Joshua, which concludes from all the historical evidence that the Israelites' conquest of Canaan under the command of Joshua never actually happened, and this book in scripture, as with the Book of Judith, is therefore largely a work of fiction. This being so (and it is, according to the weight of contemporary academic conclusions), it seems reasonable to ask: why is this book still canonical scripture, when The Book of Judith was omitted from the canon for exactly this reason?

[2] These scriptural texts were often written many centuries after the events which they purported to describe. Their unknown writers did not have the perspective on history which we now have, and ancient stories which finally were committed to text had already been interwoven with considerable embellishments as a heritage stemming from an oral tradition.  

Jody Enders: Medieval Snuff Drama, published by the University of North Carolina (the author uses the term 'Medieval' in her title and article for stylistic reasons, as the period is actually the Renaissance).
Louis Goosen: Van Abraham tot Zacheüs, published by Sun, Amsterdam.

The images for this post are details of the statue in alabaster of Judith by Conrat Meit, in the Bavarian National Museum. The statue was created in the late 1520's - just two decades before the events related here. This statue and other works of art portraying Judith are now featured as a post on my blog: On Being the Opposite of a Moth. You are welcome to visit and see them here: Judith: The Woman with a Sword

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